Bus driver drew complaints before fatal crash

Several students tried to warn their school about the bus driver who was later involved in a collision that killed a Calgary girl, an inquiry hears

School received warning letter from Alberta Transportation

A police officer consoles bus driver Louise Rogers at the scene of the fatal crash in October 2007. ((CBC))

Several students tried to warn their school about the bus driver who was later involved in a collision that killed a Calgary girl, an inquiry heard.

Kathelynn Occena, 9, was killed when the bus she was on drifted onto the shoulder of Crowchild Trail in October 2007. It crashed into a parked gravel truck that had pulled over for mechanical problems, and then hit a light pole.

Eleven other children on the 30-passenger bus were taken to hospital, including Occena's younger sister.

Caitlin Emard, now 16, told a provincial inquiry on Tuesday that bus driver Louise Rogers was always talking — and sometimes texting — on her cellphone.

"She swerved a lot," Emard said. "We were basically weaving quite a bit. Students were constantly yelling at her to keep her eyes on the road and the bus straighter."

The driver was also regularly late in dropping the kids off at school.

Emard said she brought her concerns to a teacher and counsellor at the Third Academy, who told her she needed to meet formally with the principal. However, when she and other students tried to schedule a meeting, they were turned down.

Emard said she thought the principal assumed the students didn't like the driver.

School received several complaints

Hazel Barker, another school bus driver, testified about an encounter about a month before the crash, when she saw Rogers speeding down Crowchild Trail while talking on a cellphone.

Barker said she memorized the licence plate and called the Third Academy to complain about the driver's behaviour.

The school bus came to a rest against a light pole after smashing into a parked gravel truck.

Last week, a retired city bus driver told the inquiry he called the school to report he had seen Rogers run a red light and swing wildly across three lanes the day before the crash.

The inquiry heard that Alberta Transportation sent the Third Academy a letter in February 2007 warning that its drivers were speeding and receiving tickets.

The fatality inquiry is not intended to assess blame but is looking at training and bus safety in this case. The inquiry judge can make recommendations to prevent similar future incidents.

Rogers pleaded guilty in September 2008 to a single charge of careless driving under the Traffic Safety Act. She was fined $2,300 — the maximum penalty allowed — and her driver's licence was suspended for 90 days.

'I was concerned. I felt that she needed to speak to a professional.'— Miranda Findell, parent

Parent Miranda Findell told the inquiry Tuesday that she complained to the school three times about Rogers' mental state and ability to drive a bus safely.

Findell, whose son rode the school bus every day, said Rogers would call her almost every evening to confirm pickup details. During those calls, Rogers would also talk about how stressed out she was over relationships and money.

"I was concerned," Findell told reporters. "I felt that she needed to speak to a professional and so therefore I contacted the school and asked them to speak with her and asked for the psychologist on staff to perhaps consult with her and help her in any way."

School official believed driver was OK

On Monday, Rogers, 42, has told the inquiry she remembered little of the crash itself and admitted she may have dozed off beforehand. She also outlined the personal turmoil in her life that required several hospital visits after a suicide attempt.

Sunil Mattu, chief operating officer of the Third Academy, testified that the school knew of the complaints laid against Rogers, as well as her personal problems. He said he did not know Rogers tried to kill herself or was on antidepressants.

Despite the problems, Mattu said he believed the bus driver had turned things around after returning from stress leave. 

Mattu told the inquiry that Occena's death was a "a tragic accident that no paper could have prevented," referring to any additional training the driver could have taken. 

Terry Krepiakevich, a toxicologist with the RCMP, testified on Tuesday that Rogers had three drugs in her system: a sleep-inducing drug called temazepam, diphenhydramine, which is common in over-the-counter sleep medicines, and citalopram, an antidepressant.

The levels of medication were not substantial enough to affect the operation of a motor vehicle, Krepiakevich said. "It would have a very, very minimal effect."

With files from Zulekha Nathoo